Happy birthday, you old crumpled wave of steel, you! L.A.'s signature building opened to the public 10 years ago today, giving the city's downtown a much-needed civic boost and cementing architect Frank Gehry's status as a metal god. I wrote a story for this month's Los Angeles Magazine about the building's anniversary, and, in the process, dug up a few more interesting facts that you can read while you wrap Disney Hall's birthday presents in aluminum foil.
Everyone thinks that Disney Hall is just Gehry ripping off his design for the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. But the design for Disney Hall came first. The initial $50 million gift from Lillian Disney, widow of Walt, was granted in 1987. Gehry was selected in 1988, and his design was announced in 1991. Due to funding constraints, however, construction didn't start until 1999. Meanwhile, Bilbao was completed in 1997. TAKE THAT, SPAIN.
The original design called for limestone. A prototype of a wall was even constructed and exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1992. But, after concerns about cost, the stone was replaced with steel.
Disney Hall is actually just one small piece of a much larger, unbuilt proposal designed by Gehry called The Grand (also called the Grand Avenue Project, seen above). The 3.6 million square foot mixed-use proposal features shopping, dining and several residential skyscrapers on three city blocks. The developers just won an extension to try to bring their plan to life, but the design is still being debated.
Okay, not duct tape, but a special kind of adhesive. The outside walls are covered in 6,500 stainless steel panels, no two of which are the same shape or size. Permasteelisa, the construction team, needed a way to invisibly fasten each 145-pound piece of steel—no rivets, no welds. The solution: 3M’s VHB Tape, an acrylic foam adhesive so strong it can hold locomotives together.
Not surprisingly, Gehry's hand-sketched undulating walls and irregular shapes presented a challenge to contractors in the age of early computer modeling. His firm used software called CATIA (Computer-sided Three-dimensional Interactive Application), that was being used to design French fighter jets.
When Mayor James Hahn dedicated the building, his comments were eerily prescient: "This building has a UV factor of 100." The combination of hyper-reflective and concave surfaces created a parabolic mirror—similar to burning ants with a magnifying glass, except the ants were people! Angelenos living in the adjacent condominium building suddently found themselves in mysteriously overheating apartments. Employees reported traffic cones melting and the glare was so bright it distracted drivers on the 101 Freeway. A 2005 study [PDF] determined the building was creating a microclimate, with temperatures soaring to 138 degrees on the sidewalk. The offending panels were first covered by fabric as a temporary solution, then dulled with two industrial sanders to reduce the reflection.
Well, at least the trees do. Landscape architect Melinda Taylor selected the flowering trees in the garden because of their looks and excellent timing. They bloom one after another, in very distinct shades: Hong Kong Orchid (magenta), Strawberry Snowball (red), Naked Coral (deep coral), Chinese Pistache (orange), Pink Trumpet (pink) and Tipu (yellow).
Los Angeles Philharmonic concerts at Disney Hall don't use any audio amplification. The walls are clad with 133,000 square feet of Douglas fir acoustic paneling—the same wood used on the back of cellos and violas—to provide optimal sound reflection to all seating areas of the hall. In collaboration with acoustician Yasuhisa Toyota, Gehry custom-designed every element of the hall, right down to the music stands, which include a soundproof pencil shelf.
Gehry provided his own voice for an episode called "The Seven-Year Snitch," where he's asked to design a concert hall for Springfield. He tosses a letter from Marge Simpson onto the sidewalk, and envisions the design in the crumpled piece of paper, adding fuel to the widely repeated urban legend about Disney Hall's real-world inspiration. Gehry has repeatedly said it's not true—that the building was inspired by clipper ships and his love of sailing—and he has since said he regretted making the appearance.
There are 366 steps around the exterior of Disney Hall, including several hidden staircases which are not readily visible from the street. In one section, you can climb behind the building's steel cladding. Although plenty has been written about the building's poor relationship with the street, people do use these outdoor elements as a public space. There's a park in the back of the second floor, and, in the morning, local residents can be seen ascending the building like a kind of architectural StairMaster.